THE ST. LOUIS art world today is defined by the oppositional consciousness that emerged in the wake of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown and subsequently spread out through the streets and into museums around the world in the ensuing three years. Reverberations from the protests that began on West Florissant Avenue in neighboring Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown was shot, continue to be felt far beyond the formerly sleepy Midwest city. While the full social and political effects of this pivotal moment are still being assessed, it is clear that the role of art in the city has been reconfigured—and that St. Louis now offers a model for the critical reinvention of the art world as a whole.
Young artists who played key roles in St. Louis activism have become national and international figures. Members of Artivists STL, a collective organized by De Andrea Nichols—including Marcis Curtis, Sophie Lipman, and Mallory Nezam, among others—were highly visible at marches in 2014. Together they carried a mirror-covered, casket-shaped box, confronting officers on the front lines with their own fractured reflections. Mirror Casket, as the work became known, has since entered the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection. Artist Damon Davis created outdoor installations around the city in 2014, many incorporating images of fellow activists’ raised hands—that potent symbol of police brutality against unarmed black men. The “All Hands on Deck” series (2014), initially positioned in boarded-up windows in Ferguson, led to exhibitions for Davis at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center in Harlem and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Most recently, Whose Streets? (2017), the documentary Davis codirected with Sabaah Folayan about the uprising, has been distributed across the nation to wide acclaim.
While certain individual artworks and collective actions have become icons of the movement, many of the artists behind them have channeled the energy of the protests into attempts to transform institutions. The oppositional spirit of Ferguson reemerged in this context in the fall of 2016 when a retrospective of Kelley Walker’s work opened at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM). At a now infamous public program, the white New York–based artist attempted to dodge questions about the intention behind his appropriation of images of black bodies for his work. Davis issued a widely circulated call for a boycott of the museum and the removal of Walker’s paintings. Black members of the CAM staff, including Nichols, signed a remarkable letter in support of protesters, revealing their commitment to working within the institution to transform its power relations. [pq]Revolt has arguably become the city’s greatest art world export.[/pq]
In retrospect, the CAM protest appears to have anticipated a pattern that would be repeated in calls for the destruction of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York and the dismantling of Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2017)—a monument to Dakota men executed in the nineteenth century—at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The radicalized terrain of St. Louis has consistently sparked the consciousness of the nation. Revolt has arguably become the city’s greatest art world export.
The art world has been pushed to adopt a new set of ethics, with both powerful institutions and grassroots organizations aiming to expand the representation and visibility of artists of color, widen the canon of contemporary art, and respond to public demands with practical transformations. For its part, CAM recently hired Kuwait-born Wassan Al-Khudhairi as chief curator, the first person of color to hold that position. The museum has also created a fellowship designed to foster more diverse staff hiring and hosted public programs meant to offer an increased level of transparency about CAM’s curatorial process.
The neighboring Pulitzer Arts Foundation has become in recent years a model for how an institution can maintain a rigorous curatorial vision while simultaneously remaining relevant to its immediate community. Director Cara Starke and director of public programs Kristin Fleischmann Brewer have stressed collaborative initiatives. Glenn Ligon organized the 2017 exhibition “Blue Black,” a show examining the political, formal, and metaphysical modes in which the two colors have been used. In 2016 the Pulitzer initiated a new series of commissioned works with whiteness, inc., a video by poet and artist Claudia Rankine that examines the racial dimensions of consumerism. While Rankine and Ligon have brought national attention to the Pulitzer, the space has also hosted St. Louis–based civic activist groups, poets like Treasure Shields Redmond and Aaron Coleman, self-care advocates, experimental architects, musicians, and a wide range of diverse local artists.
THESE INSTITUTIONAL CHANGES are happening in tandem with the growth of small-scale, artist-run organizations throughout the city and its surrounding towns. After decades of flight to other art centers, many artists and curators are finding that St. Louis, once considered to be on the margins, has become a site of expansive possibilities. The artists and activists currently reimagining the city are conversant with a new vocabulary: intersectional, speculative, revolutionary. Led primarily by artists and organizers of color, along with an increasing number of transplants and others returning to the city after decades away, the cultural community has made St. Louis a compelling space for aesthetic investigation and direct action.
Key anchors of this movement include the Yeyo Arts Collective, a nonprofit led by an intergenerational group of female artists of color. Their space hosts art exhibitions, craft workshops, musical performances, and meetings for community organizations including the Cowry Collective, which maintains a network for bartering goods and services outside the cash economy. The Black Skillet Funders also utilizes the Yeyo Arts Collective space to host dinners, the proceeds from which are used to give microgrants and loans—not to mention meals—to black artists. The Cherokee Street Reach empowers youth in a community that is home to many artists and activists through a range of art camps, street festivals, and performances, often held in the self-organized Love Bank Park. [pq]Perhaps for the first time since its peak more than a century ago, the city seems to be looking forward rather than toward the past.[/pq]
The collective sensibility manifest in such organizations is reflected in the working methods of artists in the city, who tend to place a premium on mutual support. Though they show work individually, Lyndon Barrois Jr., Addoley Dzegede, Jen Everett, Kahlil Robert Irving, De Andrea Nichols, Katherine Simóne Reynolds, and WORK/PLAY (Kevin and Danielle McCoy) comprise an informal collective, often exhibiting together in spaces such as projects+gallery and Kansas City’s 50/50. Artist Basil Kincaid produces performances in vacant lots as often as in proper galleries, his work taking the form of rituals of healing and reclamation. Similarly, Ilethia Sharp’s itinerant curatorial experiments take advantage of the unconventional spaces available in the postindustrial city, popping up on racquetball courts and in vacant warehouses.
Many artists returning to the region after stints elsewhere are finding space for curatorial experimentation. Amy Granat and Annina Herzer’s distinctive storefront nonprofit, Parapet Real Humans, has hosted solo projects by artists from around the world, including Jacob Kassay, Karin Schneider, and John Riepenhoff. Outside of town, Galen Gondolfi and Chris Carl’s sprawling Granite City Art and Design District (GCADD), an offshoot of the legendary fort gondo compound for the arts, now occupies a full city block in a sparsely inhabited steel town across the river from St. Louis. The District hosts an array of exhibition spaces, land art experiments, and unclassifiable performances. There is a feeling of dense interconnection between each of these projects, with many participants eagerly taking on roles at various institutions and within different collectives.
Somewhere in this mix, an alternate St. Louis is still taking shape. Perhaps for the first time since its peak more than a century ago, the city seems to be looking forward rather than toward a past when it was the fourth largest city in the United States. It is no accident that St. Louis’s creative rise has tracked with direct activism. Artists are taking more profound risks than they have in decades, institutions and independent spaces are becoming more responsive to public needs, and many in the city are echoing critical theorist Grace Lee Boggs’s sentiment that staying put is the most radical thing you can do. The art world here remains in a state of emergency as well as emergence. The lessons from the unending series of protest actions over the past several years are incompletely embedded in institutional and individual practices, but the overall cultural field has undergone a dramatic change since 2014. It remains to be seen if this radicalism can last, or if post-2014 St. Louis will simply become a footnote to history. An energy born here seeks to transform the world. The question is, how far will we let it change us?
Atlas is a rotating series of columns by writers from London, St. Louis, and Dhaka.
Ferguson Fights For Justice Beyond Mike Brown’s Death
By Ryan J. Reilly and Amanda Terkel
FERGUSON, Mo. — This small St. Louis suburb has been transformed over the past two weeks. Hundreds of people turn out every night to march up and down West Florissant Avenue demanding justice, accountability and a voice in the decisions made on their behalf. Businesses have been closing early just to avoid any potential trouble once the sun goes down, and the city government is having to come up with answers for why it looks so unlike the majority of the people in its community.
A daily routine has started to develop in which residents come over after work and join the protests. Many go home before the sun sets, but others stay out until there is a confrontation with the police and officers clear the street — and inevitably make arrests. Then the next morning, volunteers in the area show up early and clean the debris from the night before. Then, the pattern repeats.
The past few nights have been calm. It seemed that the protests were moving away from violence, and there was talk among the participants about what they want when Ferguson goes back to normal — or hopefully, a new normal, one in which the African-American majority in this city has representation in the city government and police force, both of which currently are overwhelmingly white.
In other words, they’re hoping something more will come out of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of officer Darren Wilson.
The city of Ferguson has already taken some promising steps, putting out a statement Tuesday calling for an end to the nightly protests and pledging measures to make the community “feel more connected,” including more transparency in police operations, an effort to increase the number of black police officers and a promise to engage young people in the city with better resources and more jobs.
In recent days, police have dramatically scaled back their presence at the protests. The hulking military-style vehicles are still there, but they are positioned at the back of parking lots. Police have more often started to venture out onto the streets without wearing bulletproof vests. And when several hundred protesters chanted from across the street toward the Ferguson police headquarters on Friday night, there was only a thin blue line of about 15 officers, with sidearms instead of rifles, staring back.
But there’s still deep skepticism, in large part because Wilson has not yet been charged with a crime in the death of Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager who was shot just blocks from where the protests are happening.
Many protesters who have spoken with The Huffington Post over the last week said that some immediate justice for Brown’s killing would go a long way.
“I think the one thing that can happen that may act to de-escalate this is the arrest of Darren Wilson and an indictment,” said St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who has been a constant presence at the protests. “If these guys know that justice is being done, and if we can help restore their faith that justice will be served for Michael Brown and his family, then we have a chance to get them to calm down.”
On Thursday night, French predicted protests for “quite a while,” but said he believes the violence had ended. However, he added, if the grand jury decides not to indict the officer who killed Brown, “I worry about our city. And other cities too, frankly.”
“The long-term solution is healing,” Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol said in response to a question from HuffPost during one night of protesting. “We can walk these streets again and remember that we’ve made some changes here that have impacted this nation.”
“There’s going to have to be a transition, and that’s something that we’re going to have to work with, but the community is going to have to be a part of that,” he said.
“We could just say Brown was the final straw; it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Victoria Donaldson, 26, of St. Louis. “So until they fix that problem where young black men are being shot down or killed — not even young black men, just black men in general — are being completely disrespected and being treated like animals till the point of death, until that changes it will continue to be something that just upsets us.”
Donaldson’s father was a police officer — but never one who was violent or aggressive, she said — and that has given her a unique perspective on the situation.
“He was the one who basically taught us how to, you know, act … how to portray ourselves in any circumstance,” Donaldson said. She was interrupted by a police officer on a loudspeaker ordering people to get out of the street, because they would get hit by a car “and that will hurt.” Donaldson finished her point.
“He basically just taught us to be very short and reserved, and very, extremely polite,” Donaldson said. “Extreme politeness. Brown-nosing, basically, in my eyes. That’s how it’s been, that’s how most people of color have to deal with the police, because we always have to be on edge that we could be pulled over for speeding or for having a tail light that’s out and end up getting arrested for something that’s far more extreme.”
The Rev. Andrea Alexander, who is originally from St. Louis but now lives just outside of Philadelphia, came back to the area to officiate her niece’s wedding, and decided to make her way to the protests.
“I think maybe we don’t need things to calm down,” Alexander said. “I think historically that’s what happens: They do something, something happens, you give some small piece of something and everybody gets calm and they forget. I’m not sure how long it’s going to last. … This is the 2014 version of Freedom Summer, maybe.”
Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, an advocacy group for African-Americans in the area, said he expects an “increased level of anger, rage, disgust and resentment that you have not seen yet” if Wilson doesn’t face charges. He said he hopes Brown’s death and the subsequent uproar will result in police being forced to wear cameras.
Much of the anger has also been focused on what are seen as over-the-top police tactics, with officers treating the Ferguson area like occupied territory. The military-style police gear employed to quell unrest provoked particular anger.
Walter Rice, 75, has been seen regularly confronting heavily armed officers wearing combat gear as he carries an enormous American flag. He was out on Thursday night outside of the Ferguson Market & Liquor, where Brown allegedly stole some cigarillos shortly before his death.
Rice told officers to stop using their military gear on the protesters. “I’m not going to stop talking,” he said. “You guys take this shit home, and I demand that. I demand that you take this stuff home. Otherwise, you’re going to see this old sergeant lay down here and die. I’m 75 years old now. I’ve been through worse shit than this. I will lay my life down, let you run over me if you want. I will die here. So just take this stuff home. Take it home. That’s all.”
“The protests will end when justice is served,” said Cerra Wilson, 28. She added that she’s been disappointed in the heavy-handed police response to the protests, which has included tear gas and dozens of arrests each night.
“At this point, it’s just adding salt to injury, salt to injury, salt to injury,” she said. “It’s just like, ‘Whose balls are bigger?’ That’s just what’s going to continue to happen unless someone says, ‘I’m going to be the bigger person.’ Number one, let’s start with an apology. Maybe can we just say, ‘You know, it’s tragic that this happened,’ and come to the community, but not in just such a strong-armed way?”
Still, getting people to agree on what they want — both short-term and long-term — isn’t easy.
On Wednesday night, a small circle of individuals formed around Iyanla Vanzant, a self-described “inspirational speaker” and host of a show on OWN.
“This is too dangerous. [Let’s have] 14 days of just peace while the leaders of the community, the elders of the community, begin to meet and create a plan for moving forward. Because it’s not going to stop here,” she said. Even if you get an indictment, you’ve got a trial. And even if you have a trial, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have a conviction. But what does that do for stop-and-frisk, for the lack of jobs? What is the plan?”
But that idea didn’t go over well with everyone.
“I ain’t pausing for 14 minutes,” muttered one man under his breath.
A man in the circle suggested going up and shaking hands with the police officers as a gesture of goodwill. That idea was widely booed. Another man said he wanted a better school system, but Vanzant said they needed a “clear ask.”
A group calling itself the “Justice for Michael Brown Leadership Coalition” distributed a list of demands Wednesday night, signed by a some local leaders who have been at the protests night after night. The coalition includes some local politicians, members of the New Black Panther Party, civil rights leaders and clergymen, but it’s not clear how much support they have from the larger community. The demands included the resignation of Ferguson’s mayor and police chief, an audit of municipalities that have a history of racial profiling and that Wilson be immediately fired from the police department.
The protests have already sparked greater organizing in other areas of St. Louis and nationally, taking the movement beyond West Florissant.
Jimmie Matthews, a resident of the area who has repeatedly run for office and described his age as “pretty near 70,” said he never wants the protests to end.
“You can still protest while you’re at home, when you write a letter, when you’re by yourself and stand up for yourself. You should always protest,” he said. “You should always be in opposition to injustice, unjust causes, racism, any kind of hatred, misleading, lying, setting people up, killings and all that. We have killings in our community quite frequently. We have people going to jail.”
The involvement of the federal government has heartened some community members, who don’t trust St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to do an impartial investigation. The Justice Department is doing its own investigation into Brown’s death and also looking for “broad patterns of civil rights violations“ by the police in Ferguson.
“This is bigger than Mike Brown,” said De Andrea Nichols, 26, a social entrepreneur in St. Louis. “This is an issue that has been occurring regularly in our nation, and it took this death to make everyone go over the tipping point. In the future, we shouldn’t have to wait for something to happen to have our measures, our strategies, our tactics in place to prevent it.”